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Portraits Coming to a Town Near You

Marlene Rothacker Harrison
October 1, 2018

Traveling exhibitions are not a new endeavor for the National Portrait Gallery. The museum has been a tour organizer and collaborator  for  approximately 50 exhibitions since 1974.  During the museum’s renovation from 2000 to 2006, both the Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum took their permanent collections to other museums.  In many cases, some of these works of art will never leave the museum again.  Most notably, the famous painting of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart known as the Lansdowne portrait, traveled to seven cities from 2002 to 2004: Houston, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Seattle, Minneapolis, Oklahoma City, and Little Rock with the support from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation.  In total, nine exhibitions traveled to forty-one locations including international venues in Tokyo and London during the renovation. 

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George Washington (Lansdowne Portrait) by Gilbert Stuart, 1796; National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; Acquired as a gift to the nation through the generosity of the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation

In the intervening years, however, the Portrait Gallery was not actively marketing  this program. The staff would respond to inquiries from other museums, which usually resulted in one, or two additional locations after an exhibition closed in Washington, D.C. Other times, it would permit museums to reconstitute a project at their museum that had been conceived by Portrait Gallery staff. 

This all changed with Kim Sajet, who started her directorship in 2013.  With her vision and the desire to meet the Smithsonian strategic goal to broaden access to the collection—she asked her exhibitions team to recruit a staff member to dedicate his or her time to expanding the reach of Portrait Gallery exhibitions. I was fortunate to assume the position in June 2014 and have been privileged to work with such an exceptional team of museum professionals in order to meet this ambitious goal. 

The first show to get on the road was Portraiture Now: Staging the Self. Featuring six contemporary Latino artists and supported by the Smithsonian’s Latino Center, it was the third exhibition to travel from the “Portraiture Now” series which showcases contemporary art and was in its ninth series.  This effort was  underway when I started and there was no time to secure additional venues.  We were fortunate for the financial support from the Latino Initiatives Pool, which assisted us in traveling the show to the Americas Society in New York and the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico (a Smithsonian Affiliate) in 2015. 

The next big challenge was to travel the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. Through an aggressive marketing campaign, we secured four venues for the national tour:  Tacoma Art Museum, Washington; Art Museum of South Texas in Corpus Christi; Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Missouri; and the Ackland Art Museum at UNC Chapel Hill (currently on view until August 26, 2018).  The Outwin 2016: American Portraiture Today was the first time the exhibition which resulted from our competition traveled the country—but it was not the last!  We are already planning the 2019 competition (traveling in 2020-22) and have venues reaching out to us—primarily due to the excitement prompted by the 2016 competition winner, Amy Sherald, and her painting of Michelle Obama for our collection.

Also recently on the road was Yousuf Karsh: American Portraits, stunning photography by the portraitist of significant 20th century Americans. The tour began at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum in Atlanta, and was on view at the Dayton Art Institute in Ohio through September 16, 2018. The show will travel this fall to Lowe Art Museum at University of Miami, Florida, and end at The Rockwell Museum in Corning, New York (a Smithsonian Affiliate).

This fall In the Groove: Jazz Portraits by Herman Leonard will travel to Hillerod, Denmark, to the National History Museum, which houses their country’s portrait collection. In the spring of 2019, Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now will go to Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson, and the Birmingham Museum of Art in Alabama.

All in an effort to reach more people we are working to take more of the nation’s portrait collection and content developed by our extraordinary curators to more and more locations. Next up is Eye to I: Self-Portraits from the National Portrait Gallerypart of our 50th Anniversary celebration this yearthat will travel to four locations from 2020 to 2021.  Check back to find out if the exhibition is coming to a town near you!

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